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Author Topic: Leatherhead  (Read 344 times)


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« on: June 17, 2018, 12:23:44 PM »

A certain phenomenon can be exemplified by ‘sparrow grass’ for ‘asparagus’ and in Derbyshire there is a gorgeous brightly coloured purple blue and yellow mental found in the mines and caves which is called ‘Blue John’ from French ‘bleu jeaune’. French miners spoke this French phrase, English-speakers heard it and mapped it to the nearest English words. It is interesting to note that in both cases that fact that the remapped result is complete nonsense did not put the speakers off using it.

So we come to the town of Leatherhead in Surrey. Just over twenty years ago a couple of English linguists, Richard Coates and Andrew Breeze cracked this nonsensical name. Despite its location, before the invasion of Germanic tribes, Saxons and Angles, the area was British aka Welsh-speaking apart from the few who spoke Latin. Indeed British was spoken from Dover to Lands’ End and up as far as Inverness, The Hebrides and Orkney as far as we can tell. So the Welsh language name of this town was *Lēdrϊd meaning ‘Grey Wood’, from an earlier *lēto-ritu- meaning ‘Grey Ford’. The place name Lichfield in South Staffordshire is Llwydgoed in Welsh, from an earlier British Lētocetum which I suspect it a Latinised version of the Ancient British *Lēto-ceton maybe from an even earlier *Lēto-kaiton. The noun *kaito- is related to English heath, German Heide. It became coed in Modern Welsh.

So if you live in Surrey you might be surprised to find a Welsh-language placename right in your doorstep in such an unexpected place. The two scholars mentioned earlier did a tremendous job spotting that, I think. But now linguists are starting to realise the importance of elements that are really nonsensical, don’t feel right or just don’t fit in somehow, because that oddness can indicate that they are foreign words which are either extremely old and come from a language spoken in the area by an earlier people or the items in question could be either borrowed, with adaptations into the sound system of the recipient language so that the speakers can cope with them or else they are subjected to this kind of more severe mangling and replacement with words in the recipient language.

The Applecross peninsula on the mainland immediately to the north of me is another ‘Blue John’-type of example.

If you ever feel up for a real challenge, the highest road in Britain goes over the Applecross mountains via the terrifying Bealach na Bà meaning ‘The Pass of the Cow’ but usually given in English as ‘The Pass of the Cattle’ which would be Bealach nam Bó. There could be a dialectal grammatical difference between Applecross Gàidhlig and the declension / case forms of the noun bó (‘cow’) listed in the standard dictionary of Gàidhlig by Edward Dwelly. In Applecross Gàidhlig it could be that the noun case form of the genitive plural happens to look the same as the genitive singular or nominative plural.

If two case forms fall together and one form is used for both cases this is called case syncretism and it is an extremely common phenomenon, one that has affected almost all the languages of western europe for some reason. English Welsh French and Swedish are extreme examples, whereas German, Icelandic and Gàidhlig have been less affected. Ancient languages such as Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Irish and even Old English were examples of languages that had a full, elaborate noun case system, with between five and seven distinct case forms in singular and plural or even a three kinds of number system singular, dual and plural in some more conservative languages. This is why I hesitate a bit in translating the name of this famous terrifying road.

I visited Applecross in 1987 but spoke no Gàidhlig then and could not take the opportunity to talk to some of the locals and appreciate the dialect. Now I should think they are all gone. I met a young man who was from the area back in 1999 and he had learned some Gàidhlig but was not a native true dialectal speaker. He told me that he knew of one native speaker who was living back then, but I doubt there are any speakers left now. So if have missed my opportunity.